UK aims to play South Korean catch-up

August 25, 2011

The Korean "goose father" stays at home, making the money needed to keep his children and their mother in a US nest so that his goslings can win places at elite American universities - while he earns enough to make a yearly migratory visit.

So says a report by the British Council and the British Embassy in Seoul, which gives UK universities a picture of the thirst for education in the Republic of Korea.

The report urges the UK sector to "break the virtuous circle that the American Ivy League universities have established" and build close links with South Korea, where families spend a great deal on education. Doing so would enable UK institutions to benefit from fee income from Korea's students, from its sizeable science investment and from closer ties with its future leaders, the report says.

South Korea, with a population of about 49 million, has 105,000 students studying abroad, the report notes. That total is exceeded only by China (450,000 students) and India (150,000), both nations with populations of more than a billion.

There is now a battle on for those Korean students: China is drawing greater numbers as its strength as a world economic powerhouse grows, while the US wants to confirm its place as their top destination.

Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the US-based Institute of International Education (IIE), said US state universities were increasingly looking at overseas students - who pay higher fees, like any out-of-state student - as their public funding falls.

Those state universities are "very aggressively seeking international students", she said. "South Korea and China would be the first two places they would go, because there are large populations of students who can afford to pay the fees, who have good English and who are academically well prepared.

"The bad news for Britain is that the US is doing a lot to step up recruitment in South Korea."

The same is true for US private universities, Ms Blumenthal said. "In an economic downturn like this, they need to make sure they fill their seats."

Data from the Council of Graduate Schools' International Graduate Admissions Survey, published this month, show a 2 per cent rise in the number of applications from Korean students to US universities in 2011 - following on from no change and a 9 per cent fall in the previous two years.

Take more pie in the 'Sky'

The British Council-British Embassy report focuses closely on the so-called "Sky" triumvirate of the nation's leading universities (Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University), a group now augmented by the specialist science and engineering institution, KAIST.

It is here, the report says, that the future executive of the chaebol - the huge South Korean conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai - "forms connections with (the nation's) future presidents, National Assembly members, lawyers, etc. Who you know in Korea still matters a lot in business and politics. Even maxima cum laude from Harvard can't bring you that."

The report, published in International Focus, the UK Higher Education International Unit's electronic newsletter, argues that UK universities could tap into the demand from the chaebol for well-connected graduates who are fluent in English.

British institutions could offer "an 18-month course beginning with language training and leading to an MA following their first degree", it says.

"This could be taken immediately after Sky-KAIST graduation when the Korean network has been sufficiently embedded."

The report adds that "we need to work with the Korean government to boost the recognition of UK qualifications as opposed to those from the US".

49th parallel ties

But Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research Fellow in sociology and modern Korea at the University of Leeds, noted the strong roots of the US-Korean relationship.

"South Korea is a country that was literally founded by the US," he said. "It was the US that suggested the post-war division; there was three years of rule by the US military government before the Republic of Korea was founded. The US has been the abiding power and remains so."

As such, he said, for Korean students heading abroad, the US "would be the automatic choice".

Although Mr Foster-Carter said he had personal reservations about world university rankings, he added that British universities might offer their strong overall position in such tables as a carrot to Korean institutions and students.

There remained "a strong status element" in the Korean attitude to education, he said.

In addition, US and UK universities face further competition from China. Korean students make up per cent of overseas students there, according to figures from the IIE's Project Atlas, more than from any other country.

Mr Foster-Carter said: "In a way, if you're Korean right now, you're placing bets as to which is the power (the US or China) to attach to."

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